Updated 12/15/15 - Rate increases due to legislative transfers

In September we witnessed the final outcome of a much debated  struggle over the funding and budgeting of our state government system. The outcome of this debate was a legislative budget transfer from the Department of  Conservation and  Natural Resources Funds for the 2016 fiscal year. The entirety of the funds is to be transferred directly from the State Park system. This $3 million transfer will be made to provide financial support to other state government agencies and programs that the legislature deems as “essential”.

Over the past five years, more than $30 million has been transferred from the ADCNR to the general fund to support these other state programs. The state parks system alone has been forced to transfer half of the $30 million from its division. This fifth consecutive year of transferring cash from ADCNR accounts mirrors those endured in 2012 and 2013 when it lost the Use Tax and Cigarette Tax funds that support parks maintenance and improvement programs. The parks system suffered those occasions by relying on reserve funds and the resourcefulness of our employees, however, reserve funds and practical options have been exhausted. 

The timing of this year’s transfers left our system scrambling to develop contingency plans that include rate and fee adjustments to offset the loss of the $3 million. Part of this contingency plan involves closure of 5 of our state parks, seasonal closures at other parks, some rate increases and a resort fee. The approvals of those changes require time, which compounds our ability to notify guests. This is all very difficult for the staff to execute in a short timeframe. We have been forced to make these adjustments to ensure that the system itself survives as we continue to lose money due to legislative transfers year after year.

New system-wide rate increases that are in effect include:
* Entrance fees at some large parks have increased by $1.
* 8 % increase on select base lodging rates. Gulf State Park has increased as a variation of this.
* Increase in one –time transaction fee by $1. This fee pays for computer reservations and networking. 
* Increase in marina slip rentals
* New resort fee to address resort maintenance costs not directly tied to other fee.

Resort Fees are not unusual within the hospitality industry. That fee addresses park overhead and the costs of maintaining amenities which have no cost-center or charge, but were previously supported by earmarked funds which we lost in the transfer of the $3 million. Our state parks offer amenities and conveniences that are unmatched in most areas. They consist of thousands of  acres, often times in very expensive areas for labor and other maintenance services to access. The resort fee will allow us to continue providing top-shelf amenities of well-manicured greenspaces, parkways, common areas and trails, pristine sugar-sand beaches, dedicated public safety and security, play areas and playgrounds, picnic areas, dog  parks, fresh-water lakes, nature centers  and so much more.

We understand the frustration and circumstances surrounding our patrons with fixed incomes.  We are also on something of a fixed income ourselves. The park system we have all known and become accustomed to for the last 75 years will continually change as long as money is taken from our accounts year after year. Please don’t direct your frustration at the parks system or our staff. We are only making the adjustments we have been forced to make due to the cash transfers by our state legislature.  

We love being a part of communities and the economic impact we provide to the area. However, difficult financial times such as these call for all of us to be asking ourselves what we can do to support the parks system, not what we can do to help ourselves. Please continue to reach out to us with questions or ways that we can make your experience more enjoyable.   

Updated 12/8/15
We are thrilled to report that we have been able to succesfully negotiate agreements with the City of Florala and Dallas county to keep Florala State Park and Paul Grist State Park open to the public.
Florala will transition to Florala City Park and be owned and operated by the City of Florala. Paul Grist State Park will continue to be owned by the State, but leased to Dallas county for their operational management. We are currently working with the City of Camden and Wilcox County on a possible solution to the closure of Roland Cooper State Park.  

Updated 11/19/15
The Alabama State Parks System is implementing a new contingency operations plan that will go into effect on October 1 as a result of the Legislative budget cuts for fiscal year 2015-16.  This plan includes closure of a number of parks and park operations, reduction in staff and operational hours at additional parks and park facilities, as well as a potential concession operation for one facility and other new approaches to serving the public. Beginning October 15, the following five parks will be closed: Bladon Springs, Paul Grist, Chickasaw, Florala and Roland Cooper. 

“It is with great disappointment that we have to make this announcement today,” said Gunter Guy, Commissioner of Alabama’s Department of Conservation and Natural Resources. “Due to these recurring administrative transfers by the legislature from our department and the impact they’re having on our state parks system’s budget, we are having to make some very difficult decisions to offset the loss of revenue. These five parks were selected for closure because they have consistently lost money over the past several years. However, the Alabama State Park system is important to the majority of the people in this state and I hope that we can find a solution to this budget issue by the next legislative session.”
 
It is important to remember that the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (ADCNR) is not a General Fund agency.  Over the past five years, more than $30 million has been transferred from the ADCNR to the general fund to support other state programs. The state parks system alone has been forced to transfer half of the $30 million from its division. This fifth year of transferring cash from ADCNR accounts mirrors those endured in 2012 and 2013 when it lost the Use Tax and Cigarette Tax funds that support parks maintenance and improvement programs. The parks system suffered those occasions by relying on reserve funds and the resourcefulness of our employees, however, reserve funds and practical options have been exhausted.  The entirety of this year’s $3 Million transfer will come from the State Parks Division’s accounts.
 
In addition to the closure of five parks, a number of parks and park facilities will reduce staff and operational hours. Those include: Rickwood Caverns and Blue Springs to be closed during fall and winter; Desoto and Cheaha Lodge & Restaurant will operate on weekends only during fall and winter; the system will attempt to transfer Lakepoint’s golf course to a concessionaire, and if that is unsuccessful, the golf course will be closed; closure of Bucks Pocket campground and transition to an unmanned, day-use only park to be managed by a nearby resort park.
 
“Closing parks, reducing operations and laying off staff was something we hoped we could avoid,” said Greg Lein, Director of Alabama State Parks System. “However, as we have said for the past several months publicly, we can’t afford to run our current system with a continued loss of revenue due to this chronic problem of legislative transfers from our parks division to the general fund budget. These closures are going to negatively impact our state – from the citizens in the communities where they exist, to the dedicated staff at these parks who have worked so hard serving the public for many years.”
 
There will also be a number of additional revenue options implemented in October that include: day fees at parks will transition from $4 per adult to $5 per adult (smaller parks with fewer amenities may receive a different fee structure); 8 percent increase on select base lodging rates, coupled with a new 5 percent discount for Alabama residents; increase in marina slip rentals; new resort fee to address resort maintenance costs not directly tied to other fee structures; new park pass program to capture the present unrealized day-use revenue in ungated parks; and a new backcountry permit to attend to trails and related backcountry recreational services/programs.
 
“We feel like we have been forced to attempt to make up some of the revenue we’re going to lose due to these continued transfers by implementing this contingency plan in advance of the slower fall and winter seasons,” said Lein. “I assure you this decision was not made without careful consideration. We spent months of tirelessly working to educate the public and legislature on the impact a fifth year of transfers would have on our system, while preparing for this worst case scenario by identifying measures that would have the most minimal impact on our staff, customers and the communities where we exist.  We will continue to work with all interested parties to educate everyone on the importance of securing permanent and protected funding that will ensure that the entire park system remains open for all Alabamians throughout this state.”
  

 

Updated 9/23/15

The Legislature has concluded their budgeting effort for FY2016 and made their decision to transfer funds from our Department for a fifth year in a row. They make the state’s laws, and we must find ways to implement them.  Our immediate task is to now work with Finance and Budget authorities to analyze the impact of this additional year of transfers, and our staff are already working on contingency plans to address this loss of revenue. We do not think it’s fair to the people of the state, and the hundreds of thousands of visitors and tourists that enjoy our parks each year, for us to speculate today on how this transfer will impact the system. This remains a very serious matter for the park system, and we expect to know more within the next week to ten days and will share that information with the public at that time.

Updated 8/12/15

The past few months have been both a good time and a difficult time for our State Park system.  We have had a great Spring and Summer season in the parks, and our business has been strong and steady.  To the many customers and friends who have responded to our budgetary uncertainty by visiting our parks and supporting us by way of guest revenue, we say THANK YOU!  While visitation and business have been positive, political matters in Alabama that touch your parks have been difficult to say the least.

During this year’s regular Legislative Session, the Conservation Department and our State Parks Division were confronted with potential funding transfers that varied over time.  Initially, proposed state budgeting required that we would have been transferring  $11.4 Million to the State General Fund.  Later in the Session, this was changed to $9.2 Million.  From a percentage standpoint relative to our agency’s annual budget, that might not appear like a big deal.  However, the nuances of our funding from federal programs and elements of our annual cash flow and cash balance made this a very big deal.  Since 2012, the State Parks Division and the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources have been subjected to year after year of funding transfers that have been to the detriment of our programs and the public that we serve.  Over the last four years, $27,000,000 have been transferred from the ADCNR programs to the General Fund, and then to some other agency with “essential government” services.  This has been our core problem — robbing Peter to pay Paul.  This year it became such a concern that some believed it could close the doors on some of our operations.  Some called the budget a “Parks Killer.”  Fortunately, Governor Bentley vetoed that budget and our parks were given a brief reprieve.  It didn’t last long.

Over the past few weeks as the Legislature has worked under a Special Session to resolve our state’s budget crisis, we have seen moments of hope and moments of great disappointment.  We heard about talks within the House of Representatives that involved legislation to create new revenue to fund all state government programs.  Then came the news that the Senate had passed a bill 32-1 to terminate the Forever Wild program, all in the name of saving state parks.  Fortunately, the House of Representatives had a public hearing and did not vote on the Senate bill, and the public outcry over the 24 hour period to that concept was so great that the bill was withdrawn.  So as we began this week and it looked like things were turning in our favor, the Senate then amended the House’s proposed budget bill and required $18.3 Million to be transferred from the Conservation Department and your State Parks!  The House of Representatives action was swift and they rejected the Senate amendment by a vote of 92-2 on Tuesday.  The Special Session ended this week with no budget being passed and therefore the parks future continues to hang in the balance.

The stress and strain that these 11th hour manipulations place on state agencies, in a time when we need stability and support to foster near term and long term planning, is terrible for these programs.  From the State Parks system’s perspective, the absence of this stability is discouraging customers and business partners, both of whom provide the bulk of our funding through participation in outdoor recreation.  The repeated instances and recent attempts to transfer funds from our agency accounts may very well overdraw these financial resources and collapse these public conservation programs.  Such a collapse will result in the unravelling of a $2-3 BILLION annual economic engine and irrevocable harm to local governments and related outdoor businesses.  If you value your state parks, now may be the time to speak up and express your concerns to the elected officials from your area.  It is the 11th Hour.  Please don’t let your action to communicate be too late.

Updated 8/6/15
Statement by Commissioner Gunter Guy, Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources:

Yesterday, the Alabama State Senate passed a bill (SB. 38) that would divert all future transfers that annually go towards supporting the Forever Wild program instead to the Alabama State Parks System. Today, that bill was considered in the Ways and Means General Fund Committee in the House. I am proud that the committee members chose today to look more closely at SB. 38. This bill will be the end of Forever Wild as we know it. It is not a solution to the state parks systems budget crisis because although it appears state parks will benefit from an influx of funds from the Forever Wild Land Trust, appearances can be deceiving. It will not provide any guarantee that these funds being diverted to the Parks will be protected once transferred. Nothing prohibits the legislature from passing legislation to transfer any revenue generated by the state parks to the general fund. SB. 38 will kill one of the most successful and popular conservation programs in Alabama’s state history with the guise to save the state parks system. The money being transferred to the parks system will be subject to transfer - just like the approximately $27,000,000 that has been transferred from our department over the last four years alone. These transfers are the state parks system’s root financial problem. SB. 38 is an attempt to provide more revenue to the parks system (front door) to then raid it from the system’s budget once it is transferred (back door).

Let us not forget, in 2012 the people of Alabama were given the opportunity to decide if the Forever Wild program should continue as-is for another 20 years or if other options like the one being presented should be considered. They spoke loud and clear with almost 76% of Alabamians voicing their support for the continuation of Forever Wild in its current form - that was more than any other candidate or constitutional amendment on the ballot received. Forever Wild and our state parks system touch every Alabamian in the state - hikers, hunters, bikers, birders and everyone in between. I believe our legislators in Montgomery have a very difficult task at hand as they work to pass a balanced budget, but it should not be at the expense of Forever Wild, the state parks system or against the will of the voters in Alabama.

Updated 6/18/15
Thank you to everyone who has been following our budget crisis since April.  The Governor vetoed the legislature’s budget bill which included cash transfers that would have come from State Parks.  With the veto of this budget bill our immediate concerns about park closures has been relieved.  Like other state agencies, we presently have no budget for FY2016.  We also encourage our supporters to join the new Alabama State Parks Partners Coalition that has formed and learn what you can do to help your state parks.  We also appreciate all of you who have supported us by getting out and using the state parks.  Please continue to do so, and bring a friend!

Updated 6/5/15
We do not have any present plan for park closures because the budget that would have prompted that consideration was vetoed and no budget presently exists.  In the absence of anything specific, we are hesitant to speculate and generally hopeful that this problem will get solved.  We are not hearing any additional commentary at this time about cuts and transfers for a budget under the special session.  Most of what we are hearing at this time relates to the leadership finding ways to fund the state agencies at level funding. There was general public acknowledgement among the legislators that it was a terrible budget that hurts many agencies, but the best they could do under the revenue constraints that they had, and that they want to fix these revenue deficiencies in the special session.

Updated 5/14/15
As of today, the legislature has not resolved the state budget crisis and as far as we know, $10.4 Million cash is still budgeted to be removed from the Parks’ revenue sources and diverted to the General Fund.  Please continue to follow this issue, talk amongst your family and community, and express your opinions to your elected officials.  We are doing all that we can to explain the problem to those who will listen.  While we must plan for the worst and hope for the best, our primary focus at this time is to serve the public at our parks today and tomorrow.  Please get outside and visit your parks, and bring 10 of your friends!”

Updated 5/4/2015

Top 10 Facts Alabama State Parks Supporters and Skeptics Need to Know

As the debate continues about Alabama’s budget crisis and the Legislature’s proposal to take $10.4 million from the State Parks System (plus another $1 million from the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources), uncertainty hangs in the balance.

Here, though, are 10 things I want to share with our supporters and skeptics about the Alabama State Parks in 2015:

1) Alabama’s state parks are now approaching what is normally our busiest and most prosperous time of the year – summer. We have numerous events and programs scheduled for the coming months. Several new recreational concessions will be starting operations in the next month and several others are entering just their second or third year of operations.

2) Our state parks staff and volunteers are a tremendous asset when it comes to providing the public with a positive experience in the parks. This human capital is incredibly valuable to the system. 184 of the State Parks System's 748 employees are volunteers -- that's 25% of the overall workforce.

3) Our parks offer a great “park product” to the public, as demonstrated by the Trip Advisor Awards of Excellence earned by nine of our parks in 2014. These awards are decided by visitors and are based on their personal experience at our parks.

4) All 22 parks are fully operational for the first time in 20 years, which began a period of renovations and recovery from natural – and unnatural – disasters. Throughout that 20-year period of disruption, park attendance has remained stable. The past six years have been the best on record, revenue-wise, for the Parks System, but we still operate a barebones budget with very little cash on hand. That is why raiding this revenue will have a crippling impact on the Parks System.

5) From a strictly budgetary standpoint, Alabama’s Parks System operates as the most efficient State Park System in the Southeast, based on guest revenue compared to expenses. Across the nation, Alabama’s Parks System ranks in the top three using that same comparison.

6) Despite the transfer of $12 million from the administrative and maintenance funds during FY2012 and FY2013, the Parks System has been able to cope with maintenance and administrative costs to improve and maintain a quality “parks product” by drawing on our reserve funds. Those funds are now gone.

7) The Alabama State Parks System’s cash balance is at its lowest point since 2000. This, along with the seasonal patterns of our cash flow, amplifies the potential impact associated with the proposed transfer of $10.4 million of State Park System funds. Despite the implementation of efficiencies started in 2000, the costs of materials, utilities, insurance and staffing have increased significantly over time.

8) A 2014 Economic Impact Study performed by the University of Alabama demonstrated that our state gains a tenfold return ($375 million) on investment in our State Parks System. In 2014, the Parks System had 4.6 million visitor occurrences. Our State Parks System is a highly valued public service program that improves our quality of life and brings significant revenue to the communities where our parks exist.

9) Since our budget crisis has become publicly known, the outpouring of support from citizens who love and appreciate their state parks has been tremendous. A new Facebook page supporting the State Parks System (AL State Parks Partners) gained more than 22,000 “likes” on their page in less than two weeks.

10) The Alabama State Parks System is a user-pay system – one that is now attracting private investment and partnership relationships. We need the public to continue to visit and use the parks this spring and as much as possible this summer. Your support is more important than ever.

Park partners need to continue speaking with family, friends and elected officials to let them know that a fully funded State Parks System brings benefits beyond measure. Please know that we are doing everything we can to keep the state parks open and to ensure that we continue to provide the kind of service guests have come to expect. We are open for business and hope to see you very soon at one of our 22 beautiful state parks.

Greg Lein is the director of the Alabama State Parks. He can be reached at Greg.Lein@dcnr.alabama.gov. For more information on facilities and reservations, please visit www.alapark.com

To learn about this topic in more detail please watch this TV interview with Parks Director, Greg Lein. 

Alabama State Parks Budget Crisis Q&A

Recently Alabama State Parks was notified of the Alabama Legislature’s intent to transfer $11.4 million from the 2016 Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (ADCNR) budget. The majority of these funds, $10.4 million, would come from the State Parks system. Many of you have questions about what will happen to the 22 parks in the State Parks system if this money is taken. Here are some facts that may answer your questions.

Why do the majority of the funds have to come from the Alabama State Parks?

Alabama State Parks is one of four divisions, each separately funded, within the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources. The revenues used by the Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries Division, Marine Resources Division and most of the revenues designated for the State Lands Division are protected by federal laws and regulations and cannot be diverted. This means the majority of state dollars belonging to the Department of Conservation that are eligible to be transferred can only come from Alabama State Parks.

I thought Alabama State Parks were self-funded. Why is there not enough money to operate them independent of the budget cuts?

About 90 percent of the annual funding to operate state parks comes from user fees such as lodging, gate entries, camping, meeting space rentals etc. However, not all parks make money every year. The parks that do not are supplemented with revenue from the parks that do make money.

In the past, Alabama State Parks have received funds allocated by the Legislature at an estimated $3 million in cigarette tax money and $5 million in sales tax cap money. This money, used for maintenance and capital improvements has not been consistently allocated to State Parks every year. This $8 million is crucial to the existence of the state parks because it allows us to improve the product our staff have to sell to the public every day.

Within the last few years, the State Park system has experienced numerous financial blows associated with disasters such as the BP oil spill, hurricanes and tornadoes. As a result, affected parks lost revenue from closures due to needed repairs. In the past, these disruptions were endured by relying on reserve funds within the state parks system, but all reserve funds have been exhausted. This is the first time in 20 years that all facilities in all 22 state parks have been open at the same time.

Which parks may close if the parks are not fully funded?

There are only 7 parks that have made money consistently over the course of the past 3 years. If our budget is cut by more than 25% we will have to take drastic steps to cut losses to our operating revenue. We are working every day to create new revenue and to ensure that we are operating as efficiently as possible. This raid of revenue to our operating budget ($2.8 million) will cripple our system and we will have to make cuts for the system to survive. Below are the 15 parks that have lost money consistently over the past 3 years.

Bladon Springs                       Paul M. Grist                           Lakepoint                   
Blue Springs                           DeSoto                                   Lake Guntersville
Bucks Pocket                          Florala                                    Lake Lurleen  
Cheaha                                  Frank Jackson                         Rickwood
Chickasaw                              Joe Wheeler                            Roland Cooper

How can I help Alabama State Parks?

It is increasingly more challenging to provide a service that the citizens of Alabama expect and deserve. We are proud to say that we meet these challenges head on because of our great staff and our supporters.

These Supporters are our Partners!

Partners are not only our visitors, but community organizations such as chambers of commerce, civic organizations and city and county governments. They are the ones who support our efforts to provide recreational activities for all to enjoy.

In the last few days our Partners have established a coalition as an effort to show support.

The best way you can help is to visit a state park with your family and friends. All parks are currently open and need your support.

You can also follow the Alabama State Parks Partners Facebook page and join this coalition by sending an email ALStateParksPartners@gmail.com.